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  • Myth Launchings and Moon Landings:Parallel Realities in Susan Power's The Grass Dancer
  • Lee Schweninger (bio)

In her novel The Grass Dancer (1994), Dakota writer Susan Power describes the United States' scientific and technological advances in the context of the lives of the members of several families on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. She juxtaposes the 1969 moon landing reported on television, for example, with the traditional preparation of corn soup as Margaret Many Wounds lies on her deathbed. Through such juxtapositions, Power reexamines and questions the significance of the technological revolution, showing that her characters derive their worldviews as much (or perhaps more) from ancestral histories and ideologies, from non-mainstream beliefs, as from post-World War II technologies such as lunar modules and televisions. Power offers the reader new ways of understanding the place of mainstream Western technology and Western epistemologies, and her characters also suggest alternative ways of perceiving reality. The author thus calls into question Western or mainstream conceptions and understandings of what constitutes reality, and she thereby problematizes the typical boundaries of realistic fiction. Like the character Pumpkin, the mainstream reader may well "have to put aside one worldview—perhaps only temporarily—to take up another."1 Although Pumpkin identifies one worldview with what she calls "the Indian community," I intend no such generalization. Mainstream readers in my context here may well be Native American just as some non-Native readers may be fully enculturated into the specific Dakotan culture Power describes. In this particular context, I argue that the author's challenge is to demonstrate to an uninitiated or mainstream reader the power and presence [End Page 47] of an alternative reality. This essay suggests the ways Power does indeed make evident the possibility of such realities.

William Cronon epitomizes the typically-privileged, mainstream view of what constitutes realism when he argues that "stories cannot contravene known facts about the past;" he maintains that "the biological and geological processes of the earth set fundamental limits to what constitutes a plausible narrative."2 Arnold Krupat has challenged Cronon's ethnocentric worldview, writing in Red Matters, for instance, that "both mythical and historical stories are true. [. . .] History is public knowledge of the past [. . .] public in the sense of being culturally shared;" Krupat also writes that we need to "abandon the ethnocentric insistence that there can be no history without fact, accuracy, and scientific rationality."3 In his essay "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," Hayden White concludes that historians have "a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can be only imaginary."4 White argues that story or narrative actually shapes reality and that, therefore, one cannot attain any objective truth through narrative. Whereas Cronon and White are writing about history and historical narrative specifically, Catherine Rainwater suggests that considerations of historical narrative are equally applicable to literature. Both are forms of storytelling. In one specific context, for example, Rainwater suggests that the "Pueblo-Navajo cosmological material may be judged 'true' or 'mythical-imaginary' depending on the reader's epistemological screen."5

There are, to be sure, significant differences between history and literature, but it remains important to examine the ways in which both forms of storytelling manipulate or organize the facts. In order to maintain the illusion of reality and the verifiable, realistic fiction must observe Cronon's "known facts" of the physical world typically accepted by the reading community. Like history, realistic fiction presumably must deliver a faithful representation of life; it must adhere to what its readers deem the actual and verifiable. In the nineteenth century this notion of realism was expressed by such writers as William Dean Howells, for example, who maintained that fiction should be "true to the motives, the impulses, the principles that shape the life [End Page 48] of actual men and women"6 In a brief introduction to theory, Hoffman and Murphy paraphrase Frank Kermode, writing that as fiction "has moved away from the realistic presentation of the nineteenth century, it has attempted more and more radically to represent how reality is perceived and experienced."7 In the...


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